How Italy has changed my diet in 7 years

June 3rd, 2010 · Tags: Discovering Food · Discovering Italy · Food · Italy

Beautiful red and green tomatoes After living in Italy for 7 years, I have been reflecting on my diet and what I eat daily. I don’t eat quite like an Italian, but I don’t eat quite like an American, either.

Here’s some reflections I’ve had on how it’s changed since I moved here:

  • Portion size

In the US I was used to ordering and expecting to take whatever I didn’t eat home and perhaps eating it again. Sometimes we would pick a particular restaurant knowing that it served too-large portions and we’d eat twice…for the price of one! In Italy, I find that I eat less, in terms of portion size, especially when eating out. Restaurants don’t compete with each other and you won’t find people recommending a place because they give you so much to eat. That doesn’t mean that you should eat every morsel that gets placed in front of you in a restaurant in Italy, but there’s a better chance it’s just right.

Keep on reading!

  • Glass size

How I loved getting a big plastic tumbler in the summer, filling it to the brim with ice, and then with my favorite beverage – water, soda, or juice back in California. I missed these huge glasses (and ice) when I first moved to Italy, where most glass sizes are 4-6 ounces. But I now appreciate them because it helps me regulate myself much easier in terms of how much juice or soda I drink (and I drink very little already) – often I pour in a few swallows at a time into the glass, and I never yearn for those 20 oz. cups.

  • Ice

A follow-up from the above point, I couldn’t tell you the last time I cared if I had ice in my drink, though most bars will give you ice in cocktails. Keep the water and drinks cold, pour just the amount that you need to drink in that moment and return that bottle to the fridge, and everything stays perfectly cool. But again, I’m not a big soda drinker.

  • Pork products: much more of the other white meat

For those of you who love your pork products (and I mean well beyond bacon), Italy is the place for you. For those of you who prefer the original white meat (chicken) to the “other” white meat, it’s not so great. Lunchmeats are limited to mainly pork and beef products, with the rare, plain slice-able turkey breast lunchmeat available in a rare bar, or in most supermarkets. Oven-roasted peppered turkey? Honey-roasted chicken breast? Not going to happen. This change has been rather against my will, but I’m getting used to it. One thing I do like is praga – smoked prosciutto / ham that is slightly different than the salami / prosciutto cotto – crudo / bresaola / mortadella continuum.

On a related note, you won’t find mountains of skinless, boneless chicken breast on menus in Italy. You won’t find much chicken at all and definitely, definitely no chicken in a pasta dish or on a pizza. You’ll more likely find roasted chicken (skin on, on the bone) with a side of oven-roasted potatoes.

  • Raw cheese vs. melted cheese

While cheese has always been a big part of my diet, and continues to be, I have definitely been eating less melted cheese (read: less Mexican food & American food) and instead I eat much more raw cheese while living in Italy. The few Italian dishes I really enjoy with melted cheese are cacio e pepe pasta (pasta with pecorino romano cheese and pepper), and of course lasagna and parmigiana di melanzane (eggplant parmesan) but I eat these dishes mainly in winter months, and not even once a week.

And before you say, ah ah, what about pizza? Yes, of course there is melted cheese…on most pizzas. I’ll let you in on a little secret about my favorite pizza: rossa (tomato sauce) with no mozzarella, salame piccante (hot salami/pepperoni), gorgonzola cheese (very little) and fresh rucola (rocket / arugula) on top. So very little melted cheese there, too :)

  • Beer

Wait, what? I know you were expecting a line about wine here. But living in Italy, and perhaps together with getting older, has made me realize and have the courage to say that I prefer beer over wine. Yep. Besides the fact that American beer here is considered foreign (ack!) and preferred by a few people, I have also gotten to experiment with some great European and local Italian beers. My secret is out. I don’t drink alcohol with every meal, and I still drink a glass of wine now and then, but I’m more likely to order a cocktail or a beer over a glass of red wine, or instead get a glass of white wine or prosecco.

  • Packaged snacks

I don’t think Italians snack as much as Americans do. Sometimes I miss the salty, nasty packs of low-fat BBQ chips, nut mixes, and crackers that I regularly would purchase in the States. Nuts are relatively plain (I often bring back honey-roasted, chili and dry-roasted nuts from the US) and snacks are often more sweet (the mid-afternoon break, the merenda is mostly sweet) than savory. This is probably a good thing, though. Snacking is not our friend!

  • Working out

In the States I was working out 3-4 times a week, and eating whatever I wanted. Here, for various reasons I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with the gym and so even though I’m generally eating better quality and fresher food, I’ve had to watch what I eat a bit more than in the States since I’m not burning off calories as fast.

I am sure there are many more, and I’ll do a part 2 in the future. I’m going to add a few more here:

  • Coffee

I didn’t drink coffee, at all, before I moved to Italy. I started drinking espresso here socially, with students, friends, and colleagues, and then 3 years ago I started drinking it every morning. I love and prefer Italian espresso and I seek it out wherever I go, even back in the States.

  • Breakfast

Where I once used to eat a balanced breakfast – a bagel, some fruit, a granola bar, or occasionally an American breakfast, I now eat nothing in the morning. Just a coffee.

  • Meal times : Lunch and Dinner

Instead of lunch from 11.30/12 – 1pm like in the States, my lunch hour is now 1-2pm, which means that I also get home later from work, and I eat later. Most evenings I don’t ever eat earlier than 8pm, and when I’m staying in Puglia dinner can be as late as 9.30/10pm. (thx to Tina for the reminder in the comments)

Have your eating habits changed in the last seven years, even if you haven’t changed countries?

Still hungry for more Italy news? Listen to the All-Italy podcast I co-host called Eye on Italy at www.eyeonitaly.com/podcast.

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28 Comments

28 responses so far ↓

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  • 1
    Tina // Jun 3, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    Re: Packaged snacks – yes, the snack aisle at the store in Italy, in my experience, is not even an aisle but a couple shelves. A lot less snacking and when I do see people snack, at least here in Lecce, it’s a piece of good cheese or some prosciutto crudo. Ok and gelato ;-) but that doesn’t count.

    Re: Ice – Yeah Italians and ice drinks generally don’t mix but since I’ve moved to the south, I’ve been surprised by the ice. Here, at least in the Salento, it’s perfectly acceptable to order iced coffee (really!) – so I’m always ordering caffe’ al giacchio with a twist of lemon peel or sometimes latte di mandorla. At just about any bar. :-)

    Re: Portion size: funny enough, most of my American visitors are surprised at how full they are at the end of a meal here – the portions are reasonable but there are several courses and that is always a shocker.

    One thing that has happened to me since living in Italy and then Argentina and Italy again, is my dinner time is at least 9 o’clock. The last time I was in the US visiting, I felt sooooo strange when people would ask me to arrive at dinner at 6 or 7.

  • 2
    Tina // Jun 3, 2010 at 4:14 pm

    Right. And I can’t spell. I meant to say caffe’ al ghiaccio. :-D

  • 3
    Silvia // Jun 3, 2010 at 4:22 pm

    Great post! My fav point: Beer!

  • 4
    LindyLouMac // Jun 3, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    Since living in Italy our diet has improved. We are able to by much fresher fruit and vegetables, if we have not grown them ourselves.
    Our local butchers always has a selection of chicken or turkey products, but agree not found in many restaurants. We eat a lot more fish now.

  • 5
    Ms. Adventures in Italy // Jun 3, 2010 at 4:26 pm

    @Tina – Ah yes! Meal times…I had forgotten about that one! Added :) Re: Ice, I think ice has become more prevalent especially in recent years and also as aperitivo has gotten more trendy. But I think the way Americans use ice : water, sodas; is still not very common. I love iced coffee in the summer!

  • 6
    nyc/caribbean ragazza // Jun 3, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    The “snack” aisles here cracks me up. They’re so small.

    I’ve only been here two years but can tell my eating habits have changed a lot.

    There’s a new chicken place (kind of like KFC) on Corso Vittorio. Walking by it makes me sick to my stomach. I can’t stand the smell. Two years ago I probably would have ordered a three-piece and some fries.

  • 7
    melissa // Jun 3, 2010 at 4:49 pm

    This just confirms that Italy and I were made for one another.

    My eating habits have changed rather drastically in the past couple of years. I have gone from ordering in pizza from Pizza Hut/Domino’s once a week, shopping at the grocery store, drinking soda, snacking, and eating junk during the day, to shopping exclusively at the farmer’s market for everything but flour, sugar, and spices, growing some veggies and herbs of my own, making my own pasta and bread and cheese, drinking only water and wine at home (and occasionally fresh milk or my own infused liquors), and making my OWN pizza (which is healthier and a LOT tastier) once a week. I’m eating better, losing weight, and finding so much more pleasure in food. There are a lot of factors that are responsible for this but I really love the direction my food life is headed.

  • 8
    Anne // Jun 3, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    Here in the UK my diet has more or less stayed the same.. but when on holiday it changes .. and we eat less, we eat less meat, more fish. we love buying Olives, and cold meats, salads, etc.. hardly ever snack.. We do have pizza over there, but no way could I have chicken on a pizza.. I love the simple ones, and the thinnest.. My husband is the snacky one! :-)

    Oh I always eat breakfast though.

  • 9
    Helen // Jun 3, 2010 at 6:56 pm

    After spending 2 weeks in Tuscany recently, I concluded that I definitely could tire of Italian food. I missed breakfast the most (I’m a big oatmeal and fruit kind of girl). I snacked much less than at home, and ate much more pork (but I don’t eat pork or chicken, in general). I thought portion sizes were large, especially when there were so many courses. We took to ordering just a small appetizer and a main course. Most of the time I avoided pasta altogether.

    I did eat a ton of gelato – not all of which was awesome, but most of which was tasty. And somehow I managed to lose half a lb when all was said and done. Without working out.

    Besides breakfast, the thing I missed most was American coffee. Espresso drinks aren’t the same, and next time I’m in Italy, I’m bringing my own!

  • 10
    Sheri // Jun 3, 2010 at 8:30 pm

    Your comment about breakfast really resonates with me. It’s pounded into our heads here in the US that breakfast is a MUST. But I’m rarely hungry before 11am, so I finally gave it up. Why should I eat if I’m not hungry? Seems like a bad habit.

    Just back from Portugal and Spain, we noticed most people have coffee for breakfast and maybe some toast or a little pastry (mainly in Portugal). And neither country appears to have an obesity problem. I also really like eating later, like you do, and we adjusted very quickly to eating lunch around 2 and dinner around 9.

    Other than that, I’ve just moved much more in the direction of whole foods, less sugar, local produce, as little factory farmed meat as possible (less meat in general, I probably eat 80% vegetarian).

    Oh, but I sure do miss Italian gelato.

  • 11
    Sonia P // Jun 3, 2010 at 10:04 pm

    My eating habits have changed as far as quality of food. I hit the mercato once a week for my fruits and veggies & make sure we have plenty of salad. I still do eat whatever I want but make sure I walk a lot. During my pregnancy, I ate EVERYTHING (pizza & gelato every day) and I gained 10kg (22lbs). 2 weeks after my baby was born, I had already lost all of the weight and I still haven’t changed my diet. (I’m still eating gelato everyday)

  • 12
    trininista // Jun 4, 2010 at 2:58 am

    Really interesting post. Trinis eat pretty heavily – very carb-centric – so I have had to adapt right here. I don’t eat like the average Trini – not a lot of heavy meals, verylight breakfast, more water than sugary drinks. It makes travelling a bit easier because I don’t always miss local food.

  • 13
    Nan in Venice // Jun 4, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    D’accordo, including simpler dishes with quality over quantity ingredients in general, real cheese instead of cheese “food”, less meat/more fish/fresher vegetables, eating lower on the food chain in general. I never walk and eat or drive and eat, and always have a nice walk after dining out…no way around that in Venice.

    I will have a gelato for lunch when I’m on the run (I highly recommend it) And Lemon Soda is the fresher picker upper. :)

    The wine? That’s a post in and of itself!

  • 14
    Melanie // Jun 4, 2010 at 7:17 pm

    Great post! I foresee an “Italian Women Don’t Get Fat” book in the works… :-)

  • 15
    Farmgirl Susan // Jun 4, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    I’m always interested in hearing what/how people eat, so this was an especially interesting post. I enjoyed reading the comments, too – though now I really want to visit Italy. :)

  • 16
    susan from food blogga // Jun 5, 2010 at 2:57 am

    I love this post, Sara.

    It’s funny that my eating habits have changed a lot in the past seven years as well. I didn’t move to Italy, but I did move to SoCal.

    With our amazing year-round farmers’ markets, I started eating many more fresh, locally grown fruits and veggies. I cut out high calorie snacks like pretzels and started eating more healthy snacks like edamame, almonds, and yogurt.
    Most importantly, I started exercising.

    Seems the Italians, along with most Europeans, get it: it’s all about moderation.

  • 17
    Chris // Jun 5, 2010 at 3:07 am

    I LOVED reading this!

    My eating has changed, especially since I have been blogging (which has exposed me to so many fabulous foods). Admittedly, I still roller coaster through the healthy, not so healthy…exercising, etc. My habits are always so much better in the spring and summer months, which is not surprising because of all the freshness that is pervasive throughout the markets.

  • 18
    Madeline // Jun 5, 2010 at 3:21 am

    Interesting post Sara and thanks for going into detail.

    A few habits from Italy that we still do in the US: dinner never before 8.30 pm and often around 9 pm, much to the dismay / confusion of our friends (especially when we invite them for dinner!) and no ice. I actually have to remember to ask people whether they want ice in their drinks and I often forget….

    Even while in Italy I can never get used to the ‘no breakfast’ – even a brioche isn’t enough – I get a sugar high and then crash and don’t do well. And I *really* miss going to the market to see what’s out because you know that’s what’s in season.

    Even on a recent trip to Hawaii I couldn’t believe all the fruits and veggies in the grocery store were from the same places I was used to in Chicago – so grapes from Chile etc!!!

    When we first moved back to the US I became a beer drinker too because the Italian reds I’d gotten used to drinking from the supermarket at 2 EU/bottle seemed outrageously expensive here. But I’m an Italian reds gal at heart and I have now discovered Trader Joe’s….

  • 19
    Ms. Adventures in Italy // Jun 5, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    @Melanie – Well, I still eat unhealthily, but I definitely am not substituting low-fat this with non-fat that and trying to come up with an almost-there substitution of a food that I’m craving. :)
    @Sheri – some days I probably should eat breakfast, but I’ve gotten in the habit of not eating it so I often forget. But yes, best only if you’re hungry!
    @Helen – yes, as someone who grew up with a lot of culinary variety, I do often tire of it! But luckily in Milan you can get sushi, Indian, Greek, pretty easily for a change of pace.
    @Susan – yes, part of me wonders if some of these changes would have come around on their own, even back in the States…but I’m not sure! :)

  • 20
    Italian Postcards // Jun 5, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    I agree with ALL of these points. Also I never used to eat all that much pasta before. Now I eat it almost every day!

  • 21
    Amy // Jun 5, 2010 at 8:54 pm

    My husband and I have been back in the US from living in Australia for 3 years. I found some similar things. I thought the pre-packaged food and snacks were not good brands over there. They were not good at all so I never bought many snacks like chips and stuff. Their frozen pizzas were disgusting so I always made homemade pizzas.

    They also did not use ice as much as we Americans do and my husband hated that. We also hated the small glasses you got, even just for water.

    I found we ate healthier mostly because the “quick’ foods were not very good at all so i made everything from scratch.

    We ate fresh avocado’s for the first time and loved them so much, they became a big part of our diet.

    I thought this was a great post, thanks for sharing!

  • 22
    The Food Hunter // Jun 6, 2010 at 5:38 pm

    I’d fit in fine there. Do most of this already.

  • 23
    Michelle@TastyThailand // Jun 7, 2010 at 3:20 am

    I’m the same here in Thailand – eat “not like a Thai but not like a Brit-American’ either :)

    As far as portions though, Thais order many dishes and then share, so, no, the portions aren’t smaller as you can tell from my 10 kilo weight gain, LOL.

    But…the Thai diet is much, much healthier than the American one but, then again, which country’s isn’t?

  • 24
    greta // Jun 8, 2010 at 6:41 pm

    I’ve been in Napoli for 1.5 years now. Former ice afficionado here. I could never have imagined that not only would I enjoy, but would come to prefer drinks without ice.

    I’ve also become quite the food snob with regard to freshness. When I can easily shop daily for things that were picked the day before, or better yet get them from my garden, it’s hard to think about eating produce that was likely picked weeks before and forced to ripen.

    I really loved this post – I hadn’t spent much time thinking about how my eating has changed (for the better!) since moving here.

  • 25
    Jill // Jun 9, 2010 at 11:29 am

    I could have written just about the whole thing (with the exception of the beer bc I’m all for the wine!) Now the thought of those ice-cold 20 oz-ers makes me feel a bit ugh. Cola as a sit-down drink is a whole different thing. I remember some italian friends who moved to the US and asked – is it because of the high level of diabetes that people drink huge drinks everywhere! Even in their cars and at their desks! I found their perspective funny since it’s not because of extreme thirst (rather just a habit) but it may be *causing* some of the diabetes we hear so much about.

    I’ve also got the breakfast thing – how funny. Maybe it’s because a really good cappucio is enough on its own. That and the fact that I’m not huge on sweet breakfasts either.

    ps – factoid of the day – espresso has less caffeine than filter coffee since it doesn’t hang around with the beans long! which is why you can have a couple of espresso-drinks per day without vibrating!

  • 26
    Sasa // Jun 10, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    A new fan here *^^* I’ve lived in the Thailand, New Zealand, the UK, Japan and now Austria in the last 7 years and my diet has changed quite a bit in each place. Being half Japanese, I always prepare a lot of Japanese food at home, though in Thailand I mostly just ate Thai food. In the UK I was working as a fine dining cook so I ate a lot of meat and vegetables which is not my preference – the same here in Austria, good fish is pretty hard to come by. I visit Italy a lot though, and get my fix there. I never go without brekkie though – mainly because I’m usually woken by hunger; I’m a total food monster.

  • 27
    jessica lynn // Jun 10, 2011 at 4:42 pm

    Oh wow. We’re actually moving to Italy in three months for four years (my husband is in the military). This was more informative than you’ll ever know. I put ice in my water ALL the time. I have a hard time drinking it if it’s not very cold—I don’t drink soda or juice, just water for me. That’ll be a hard change.

    So will all the pork. I practically live off chicken and turkey. The only pork I eat is bacon and occasionally sausage. I can’t wait to go back read all of your posts!

  • 28
    bellabimba // Aug 17, 2011 at 10:54 pm

    ah yes…I am Italian born, living in Canada MOST of my life. Fast forward to NOW!!! I think that yes, even though we haven’t changed our country of residence, we have definitely changed the way we eat. But a nice mocha latte with a piece of toast has always been my usual my “breakfast”. I always have felt a little guilty when I’ve been told and read that “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” Fresh fruits and vegetables make up much of our diet and in the summer (like now) the lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, string beans, zucchini and herbs from my garden are absolutely the BEST. The Mediterranean diet is possible here on the West Coast of Canada. All the posts on this blog were very interesting.

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